Himachal's apple growers wait for bus from Nepal

Shimla, Sep 23 (IANS) Fruit growers in Himachal Pradesh eagerly wait for a bus from Nepal. For it brings in "sturdy" labourers who make their efforts in farms fruitful.

Orchard owners say the farm sector has been going through a shortage of Nepali labourers or Gorkhas, who have been the backbone of the state's over Rs.2,000 crore apple industry for more than five decades.

Their numbers in the recent past have dwindled, causing delay in farm jobs like harvesting and carrying apple boxes manually from orchards to the nearest motorable road.

Now, labour shortage has forced the fruit growers to camp around the main bus stand in Shimla to poach upon the Nepali workers on their arrival.

"We are awaiting the arrival of a bus from Tanakpur, which normally carries Gorkhas," apple grower Rajiv Manta said in Shimla.

Situated in Uttarakhand on the India-Nepal border, Tanakpur, around 700 km from Shimla, is well-connected to the Himachal Pradesh capital by road.

Most Nepalis prefer to travel to Shimla by a state roadways bus that plies daily between Tanakpur and Shimla. The one-way travel duration is at least 18 hours and the fare is Rs.682.

Himachal Pradesh is one of the major apple producing regions in the country. This season, the state is heading towards a bumper production of over 35 million apple boxes of 20 kg each -- approximately 765,000 tonnes, a horticulture department official said.

A few people, however, say Nepali workers are skipping the region for better prospects in big cities.

Deepak Begta, a prominent apple and strawberry grower of Kotgarh in Shimla, said: "There is hardly any Nepali labourer in the orchards. They have skipped the region for better prospects and less labour-intensive jobs in big cities."

He said Nepali farm workers are sturdy compared to labourers from Bihar and Chhattisgarh.

Their natural ability to trudge mountains with heavy loads on their back makes them the preferred choice of the orchard owners.

"They have been working in the orchards for more than five decades. This season we are feeling the pinch more as the apple crop is bumper after two consecutive years of less than normal yield," he said.

Sudhir Chauhan, another fruit grower, said: "Some of the growers, who had sponsored trips of their representatives to Nepal ahead of the harvesting season, managed to get some sturdy farm hands."

The hill state's fruit belt falls largely in Shimla, Kullu, Mandi, Kinnaur and Solan districts. Upper Shimla areas account for 80 percent of the total apple production.

So far, over 25 million apple boxes have been sent to various markets in the country, said officials.

"Nepalis have found gainful employment opportunities in construction sites, especially hydropower projects, where they are paid handsomely," said Ram Bahadur, a Nepali labourer currently working in an orchard.

Besides apples, other fruits like cherries, pears, peaches, apricots, kiwi, strawberries, olives, almonds and plums are the major commercial crops of the state.

Apple constitutes about 93 percent of the total fruit production in the state. Harvesting generally begins in July and continues till November.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at vishal.g@ians.in)

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